In 2013 I finally fulfilled a wish to visit my grandfather’s birthplace on the isle of Raasay, and to walk the famous road built by his first cousin Calum. It’s quite a story. After unsuccessfully campaigning for two miles of road to be built linking Arnish in the north to the village, Calum decided to take matters into his own hands, quite literally. And so one morning in 1964, armed with only a pickaxe, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, Calum set out to begin what would take 10 years, and ultimately his life, to complete. (It might have been finished sooner, but Calum was also a crofter, the island’s postman, and part-time lighthouse keeper.)
What strikes visitors most on seeing the road for the first time is the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment. The stretch of land between Arnish and the village is rugged and inhospitable, and Calum never chooses the easiest or shortest route. For example the road gracefully zig-zags to accommodate the steepest gradients, with supporting wooden buttresses carefully slotted into place. Engineers the world over have come to marvel at this testament to one man’s spirit, declaring it a wonder of modern engineering. Most touching of all is the fact that Calum couldn’t drive. The road was built for the ambulance that would prove a lifeline to his ailing wife Lexie.
My own grandpa Calum, as Calum-of-the-Road’s first cousin, lived in the same house for a time as well. Being something of a black sheep and not overly religious, my Grandpa joined the Glasgow police in the early 1930s. He and I were very close. He would get misty-eyed after a few drams and talk about Raasay, sing songs and teach me snatches of Gaelic. He never told us about his famous cousin, though, until one day he pointed to an obituary in the newspaper and said quietly, ‘that’s my cousin’. They were like that.